Scholarly books that explore the connections between science and art are not uncommon, and some recent titles include Martin Kemp's The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale University Press, 1990, 375 pp.), Barbara Stafford's Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education (MIT Press, 1994, 350 pp.), and Philip Palmedo's Deep Affinities: Art and Science (Abbeville Press, 2020, 192 pp.). Historian Lewis Pyenson adds to this distinguished list his latest book, The Shock of Recognition.

However, Pyenson takes a rather different tack than the above authors: He applies a method that he calls historical complementarity to study the intersections of art and science in the lives or works of particular 20th-century scientists and artists. Pyenson explains that his “approach examines two separate domains of intellectual endeavor together, seeking common social underpinnings in a particular time and place” (p. 40) with the motifs of the book's subtitle referring to any shared themes in art and science (also see Ref. 1). Incidentally, the book's title itself has a long interdisciplinary history: Literary critic Edmund Wilson's 1943 Shock of Recognition collected American writers' reviews of their literary colleagues, and this evocative title has since been given to some 30 other books, dissertations, and articles.

Pyenson's book considers various linkages between non-Euclidean geometry in physics and a strain of abstract expressionism in art (p. 55). Some of these include (1) the education of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Albert Einstein (1879–1955), (2) interior design and mathematical models, (3) electrification's transformative effects on urban life, and (4) political, artistic, and scientific currents in 20th-century Argentina. To illustrate Pyenson's approach, I examine his analysis of the Picasso-Einstein linkage in the book's Part 2.

As in other book sections, Pyenson synthesizes a vast array of primary and secondary sources to develop a detailed history. In Part 2, this history is of the late 19th-century educational institutions, theories, and practices in which the young Picasso and Einstein were immersed. Picasso's art school instructors were familiar with the use of descriptive geometry to model objects (p. 183), and art and science faculty taught in a shared building intimately familiar to Picasso (p. 158). Yet the scant documentation of Picasso's time at these schools does not clearly show the extent of his formal training in science and mathematics, much less his artistic reaction to these disciplines. Thus, we face a basic limitation of Pyenson's approach: If direct evidence does not exist about artists' or scientists' reactions to their education (e.g., written records or first-hand recollections), then one can only suggest what those reactions might be.

In contrast to Picasso, Einstein's education is amply documented by many primary sources such as Ref. 2. Pyenson details how Einstein routinely could have seen reproductions of ancient sculptures and plaster models of mathematical functions at both his secondary and undergraduate institutions (pp. 204–216). Such figures would have provided compelling three-dimensional exemplars in Einstein's studies of descriptive and projective geometry (p. 210), and they may underlie his use of Gaussian surfaces to visualize solutions to some mathematical problems in general relativity (p. 231). Yet despite the large amount written by Einstein and his contemporaries, Pyenson's book can offer only suggested, indirect connections between Einstein and Picasso, who appear never to have met. However, this limitation does not diminish the strength of the inferences that Pyenson draws between the two men.

As for the broader issue of linkages between science and the visual arts, a 19th-century counterexample is useful. American landscapist Frederic Church (1826–1900) was an enthusiastic advocate for scientific realism in his massive trompe l'oeil canvases of spectacular vistas (pp. 92–99 in Ref. 3). Church avidly consumed the generalist writings of many of his scientific contemporaries, including explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), geologist and biologist Louis Agassiz (1807–73), physicists John Tyndall (1820–93) and Ogden Rood (1831–1902), and chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786–1889).

Church sailed in artistic pursuit of icebergs and spent months in South America studying its then-unfamiliar landscapes in exacting detail. Several major canvases followed in 1859–1866, such as The Heart of the Andes, The Icebergs, Rainy Season in the Tropics, and Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Public acclaim for these paintings was as rapid as it was fervent, and published reviews were equally enthusiastic. Throughout his career, Church's work was animated by his sometimes conflicting desires to include both current scientific observations and older visions of the sublime in nature (i.e., natural features whose greatness inspires awe), as defined a century earlier by Edmund Burke (1729–97). However, after years of public acclaim and earnest pursuit of scientific exactitude, in 1883 Church could only say resignedly “I wish science would take a holiday for ten years so I could catch up” (p. 99 in Ref. 3). Frederic Church never would catch up, and many later artists either were uninterested in or rejected contemporary science's worldview. Thus, we cannot assume that the linkages which Pyenson finds between scientific and artistic expression are necessarily strong or permanent.

The book's utility as a reference work is hampered by its index, which consists almost entirely of persons and institutions. In contrast, entries for 20th-century political, intellectual, and artistic movements are usually listed under a person's name (e.g., Marxism and cubism appear under Marx and Picasso, respectively), and so the reader is left to wonder whether missing topics have been omitted or are merely listed elsewhere. Although the index is entitled “Index of Names,” that does not by itself eliminate such uncertainty, because here “names” also include some movements (e.g., both “Bloomsbury circle” and “Oulipo group” are listed) as well as persons or institutions.

These absent index entries are not trivial, because Pyenson's subtitle advertises that he is exploring motifs in modern art and science. Unfair as it may seem, many readers first consult a nonfiction book's index to judge its value as a reference work. If they do not find there the topics or motifs that interest them most, they may forgo the effort of buying, reading, and then annotating the entire book in an attempt to find them, a task of some 600 pages here. That would be a shame for this impressive book, which clearly is the culmination of many years' research and writing. Despite some occasional limitations of its approach, it will make an invaluable addition to any scientist's library.

, “
Science in history and beyond
The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 1: The Early Years, 1879–1902
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Princeton U. P
), 522 pp. <> (accessed on 5 January 2023).
Raymond L.
, Jr.
Alistair B.
The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science
Pennsylvania State U. P., University Park/SPIE Press
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Raymond Lee is an emeritus professor of meteorology who specializes in visible-wavelength atmospheric optics, including measurements and modeling of twilights and natural rainbows. His education includes degrees in meteorology (Ph.D., Penn State University) and art history (B.A., Williams College). Most of his academic career was spent at the United States Naval Academy, where he taught and did research with midshipmen for several decades.